IN 10 YEARS WE’VE GONE from scrambling around in foreign countries looking for pay phones to stopping by the internet cafe and using Skype. From paperback language guides to real-time translation apps. From travel agents’ offices to checking websites for weather forecasts, local cams, and building itineraries in seconds. From clunky analog photo / video equipment to waterproof cams that shoot in high definition and can fit in our pockets or attach to our snowboarding helmets.
For those of us old enough to have traveled in pre-digital days, it’s amazing to realize how quickly all of this has changed. But what’s perhaps even more interesting is to look at these changes on a sociological level, how they are breaking down barriers, giving travelers the increasing ability to engage different places around the world as “global citizens.” Here are 12 specific ways:
12 ways technology breaks down barriers for travelers
1. Language – The formerly science fiction concept of a “translator robot” (such as C-3PO in Star Wars) that could allow communication between anyone is now close to reality using various mobile apps such as Word Lens, or the “conversation” function on Google translate for Android. As one Matador editor recently found, this technology is making new interactions possible:
When I was in Russia (Irkutsk), eating dinner somewhere, there were no available tables so we asked two guys if we could share and sat with them. One spoke decent English, the other not so much, and they used their phones to translate.
This technology is still in its nascent form, but as more languages are added and the technology is refined, everyone from business travelers to anthropologists will be able to interact with locals in ways that were previously inaccessible or which necessitated having a 3rd person there (and which in certain ways alters the interaction between speakers).
Digital media can make for sublime moments of cultural exchange. Photo courtesy of Lola Akinmade
2. Sharing culture through digital media – Whereas photographic and electronic equipment previously only added to the sense of separation between travelers and locals, now, in the right traveler’s hands, digital cameras, laptops, field recorders, smartphones, tablets, and other devices allow moments of cultural exchange with host families, interview subjects, and others. Sometimes it’s just showing someone a photo you’ve taken of them. Other times it’s actually putting equipment into locals’ hands.
3. Ability to “stay connected” while traveling – Whether it’s staying updated with news, or keeping in touch with family and friends, most problems with internet connectivity are close to being solved via mobile broadband technology. 3G (short for “3rd generation”) cellular networks provide bandwidth of at least 200 kbit per second, and more recent 3G (often denoted 3.5G and 3.75) and 4G releases give mobile broadband access of multiple Mbit/s to smartphones and laptops equipped with mobile modems. This breaks down barriers in the following 3 ways:
4. Sharing travel experience in real time – The combination of mobile broadband and social media — everything from twitpic to instant uploading of video to YouTube — allows travelers to keep family and friends updated on their whereabouts, projects, and adventures in real-time.
5. Ability to connect with fellow travelers – Connecting with other travelers via the internet, whether through travel communities like Matador or just via online message boards or Facebook, has now become so commonplace it’s almost taken for granted. And yet only 5 years ago, coordinating with other travelers online was virtually unheard of.
6. Ability to connect with locals – Similarly, being able to connect with locals online simply didn’t exist in any organized form before the rise of couchsurfing.
7. Sharing location in real time – Whereas the real-time sharing of travel media described above facilitates communication and allows people to vicariously experience each other’s travels, the real-time sharing of location gives travelers, particularly expedition kayakers, sailors, and mountaineers, a new kind of “safety net.” Technology such as SPOT provides up-to-the-minute GPS tracking, and can automatically initiate rescues and searches if needed. While never a replacement for common sense and knowing one’s limitations, this technology can help add confidence to those pioneering new routes and lines through the backcountry, or first descents down rivers, etc.
8. Ability to manage one’s affairs “at home” while on the road – Given that connectivity is now accessible from nearly anywhere, online options for everything from paying bills to e-filing taxes to even keeping watch on your home via live camera feeds sent directly to your mobile device, now enable travelers to effect open-ended trips, fully managing their household remotely.
9. Ability to earn money while traveling – Moreover, travelers are taking this ability to manage their “households” to the next step, which is full location independence, earning revenue from wherever they happen to be. This takes a variety of forms, from freelance writing, photography, and filmmaking, to webdesign, editing, translation, and other web-based services.
Along with the internet, the real engine that makes all of this possible is the laptop computer. Whereas even just 5 years ago, hardware was relatively heavy, slow, and lacked processing power, the latest generation of laptops are lightweight, sleek, and powerful, with the ability to run multiple programs (example: editing video while leaving your Gchat, Skype, and Google Docs open) all at the same time.
10. Ability to run a location independent company – This progression of being a location independent professional can be taken to yet another level, which is essentially that of running a location independent company. A great example is Matador, which is composed of editors and contributors living spread out across various parts of the world, many of whom are not “based” anywhere but continually traveling. We coordinate everything using free technology available to anyone: Gmail, Gdocs, Skype, and Paypal.
11. Online mapping technologies – As with the almost science-fiction seeming advancement in translation technology, 3D online mapping applications led by Google Earth are bringing the ability to see “anything from anywhere” into reality. Particularly for those pushing limits in wilderness exploration — kayakers for example — “Google scouting” rapids, gorges, and potential objectives is now a common starting point for new expeditions.
12. Facility of travel planning – While the above realities speak more to the way technology has shaped the culture of traveling, there are the obvious ways the act of travel itself has been made more accessible / expeditious through technology. This includes online ticket booking, printing out boarding passes, and general ease of obtaining travel information online.